The government of Nigeria has ordered the country’s telecommunications providers to cut off mobile service for 73 million customers. The unprecedented move is intended to force residents and mobile operators to comply with a 2020 regulation that states that each SIM card needs to be paired with a Nigerian National Identity Number (NIN).
President Muhammadu Buhari issued the order in December of 2020, though enforcement has been delayed several times due to complaints that the timelines were too short. However, it now seems that the government is unwilling to tolerate any more excuses for non-compliance, and is ordering the mobile operators to block calls to any SIM cards that have not yet been registered. Those affected will not be able to make calls until they complete the mandatory identity verification process, which includes NIN registration.
As it stands, Nigeria’s National Identity Management Commission has already handed out more than 78 million NINs, and those numbers have been linked to more than 125 million SIMs. Both the President and the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission are hoping that the new requirement will help mitigate fraud and cybercrime, and make it more difficult for criminals to communicate. In that regard, the country has been battling a wave of kidnapping and extortion, which is at least partially motivating the order that unregistered SIM cards must be disconnected.
The biometric registration program is also part of that crime prevention effort. To register for a NIN, Nigerian residents must submit personal information along with their fingerprints and a photo. A strong identity program should make it easier to track criminals and missing people within the country, and the mobile policy should further incentivize more people to enroll in the program. Nigeria already requires a NIN as proof of identification for those accessing key services like health insurance, voting, and bank accounts.
In the past, Nigerian mobile operators have faced massive fines (as large as $1 billion USD) for failing to comply with government SIM mandates. Nigeria started setting up its biometric ID program in 2019, with the help of $433 million in funding from the World Bank and fingerprint scanners from BIO-key. South Africa has also considered linking mobile numbers to biometrics, though Nigeria’s recent decision is a much more aggressive move in that direction.